Soccer on the margins

In his marvelous book, The Language of the Game, Laurent Dubois observes that, “The fact that US soccer culture has in many ways lived, and thrived, on the margins of mainstream sports is part of what has made it a vector for different ways of thinking about what this country is and can be, and what role sports can play in that.”

While Dubois was interested in the cultural margins as the location where change and interesting experiments take place, I’ve been rethinking his quotation in the shadow of Nashville SC’s season ending loss at the hands of the LA Galaxy.  While I understand that life on the margins can have its upside, the quiet desperation of those margins is more a cause for concern than celebration.

As Nashville bowed out, I found myself feel empty and vacant.  While a playoff loss by one of my favorite teams in any sport can be a moment of heartache, of what ifs, of blue reflection, this was a different feeling altogether. 

Emptiness, rather than sadness.

A numb “what just happened” rather than a reflective “what could have been?” 

Closer to “Meh” than either I or the team would have wanted.

This affective state was actually not about the season as a whole (I’ll leave it up to my colleague and editor Ben Wright to weigh the pros and cons of the season), but, really, about our final game, the beginning of the long off season.

While I have always enjoyed some aspects of the marginalia of US Soccer culture (the close knit nature of fans in general, the sense that fans are ‘in on something’ while simultaneously hoping it explodes, the ways we get to enjoy this in addition to, rather than instead of, all the ‘major sports’), that same marginalia that I generally find ways to enjoy worked against me this weekend.

And, yes, while I admit the frustration a lot of us expressed at making it to the playoffs each year only to tumble out more quickly than expected. And I admit a bit of growing disappointment that we didn’t go further while we have the Golden Boot Winner on our squad (and a hell of a great defender in Zimmerman), that’s not what my emptiness was about last week. 

No, it wasn’t disappointment so much as a dismay at how the game—a playoff game, mind you—felt as if it were playing out in a vacuum. 

With seemingly the entire world awaiting the start and conclusion of the UT-Alabama game (as well they should), with our playoff game having to be viewed in Spanish on “normal” cable television or through the MLS website, the entire event felt like an afterthought. 

No one around me – news sources included – even recognized it as part of the sports landscape.

So, what I’ve been wondering is this: do the positive emotions encouraged by marginalia only work in the context of community? That is, I was alone, and that was my choice, perhaps a bad one. 

I wasn’t at the officially sanctioned watch party at Geodis nor at any other watch party to which I was invited. I wasn’t even with any other person who really cared about the game or wanted to watch it. 

Perhaps the secret ecstatics that accompany marginalia only function—for me, at least—when its buttressed by multiple other invested fans, others who also think a playoff game for a “major” sport should be able to find itself somewhere on a mainstream outlets. 

I know I don’t have this experience of emptiness while watching at Geodis. I don’t have this experience when attending a watch party at ML Rose. I don’t even experience it when watching with a couple of fans. At least then, I get the sense that it matters for me and for others in the world.

Ultimately, while I agree with Dubois that there is always something interesting about what happens on the margins of culture, and while I’m through and through a Yotes supporter, I believe I’m going to put much more emphasis on being on these margins together. 

At least until the rest of the world catches up with us.

Author: Ben Wrightis the Director of Soccer Content and a Senior MLS Contributor for Broadway Sports covering Nashville SC and the US National Team. Previously Ben was the editor and a founder of Speedway Soccer, where he has covered Nashville SC and their time in USL before journeying to Major League Soccer since 2018. Raised in Louisville, KY Ben grew up playing before a knee injury ended his competitive career. When he is not talking soccer he is probably producing music, drinking coffee or hanging out with his wife and kids.

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